Minnesota lawmakers gathered under extraordinary conditions Thursday to swiftly approve a $330 million COVID-19 emergency response package, a day before the state’s 5.6 million residents prepared for a two-week stay home order.
The pandemic, which has now claimed two lives in Minnesota while another 346 Minnesotans tested positive as of Thursday, has radically altered how Minnesota conducts the business of its democracy.
Members were spread out throughout the House and Senate chambers, in the alcoves, gallery and even in the Capitol rotunda to remain at least six feet apart, as recommended by public health experts. Press also had limited access to the proceedings: Just six at a time could view from the gallery, and journalists were prohibited from the House floor.
The Minnesota Senate voted 67-0, finalizing the emergency measure, following a 99-4 vote by the Minnesota House hours earlier. The package now heads to Gov. Tim Walz for his signature.
The in-person gathering in a largely empty Capitol building was the result of 10 days of intense negotiations between House and Senate leaders — all conducted by phone and with little public input or scrutiny.
“We’ve done this work together in adverse conditions,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. He said legislators are not adjourning and will create a virtual meeting process as they consider other legislation needed for the COVID-19 pandemic, which has become the only legislative priority for the foreseeable future.
The one-day session came just a day after Minnesotans learned they would be forced to hunker down at home so they could slow the rate of infection. Just three weeks ago, the looming pandemic was a blip on the radar, registering only as a minor cautionary concern during the state’s recently unveiled $1.5 projected budget surplus.
DFLers and Republicans alike have jettisoned their legislative priorities — like paid family leave and tax cuts on Social Security income, respectively — in favor of shoring up the state’s capabilities against a threat never before seen in their lifetimes.
Gov. Tim Walz received $200 million in emergency funding he sought as he unilaterally directs the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. His declaration of a peacetime emergency has discomfited some Republicans, some of whom expressed misgivings about how much power Walz now wields. In particular, they pushed back on his order to shutter dine-in services at restaurants, as well as hair salons and neighborhood dentists, calling small businesses the backbone of local economies.
“How do we not destroy the livelihoods of so many people?” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake.
The package — which comes with some legislative oversight sought by Republicans — also distributes one-time money to a range of groups, including $9 million to food shelves; nearly $30 million in grants to emergency child care centers; $6.2 million for veterans; and, $11 million to be split among Minnesota’s 11 tribal nations.
Republicans defeated an effort to allow first responders and public health care workers sickened with COVID-19 to qualify for workers compensation claims. Sen. Erik Simonson, DFL-Dulth, offered a stark rebuke.
“All of these people are being exposed on a daily basis,” he said. “We need to take care of those who are taking of us. I cannot figure out for the life of me why we ignored these folks.”
He asked Gazelka to yield to a question to ask how that fell out of the final negotiations; Gazelka said business groups had pushed back, and that he hoped consensus can be reached in the future.
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and his caucus all voted in favor of the legislation, but not before registering some criticism and concern.
Daudt pointed out the grim prospects for the state’s economic and fiscal future, reminding lawmakers that the projected $1.5 billion surplus forecast in February could vanish. Unemployment claims have tripled in the past two weeks and revenues going into state coffers are expected to collapse.
Minnesotans have had to become backseat epidemiology experts in recent weeks, quickly coming to terms with previously obscure phrases like “social distancing,” “community mitigation,” and “asymptomatic transmission.” State health officials have made a number of recommendations that underscored all the preventative measures that House and Senate staff implemented.
State health officials have repeatedly told Minnesotans to assume they are carrying COVID-19, instructing them to keep at least 6 feet of distance to avoid infecting others.
The bill is the second major COVID-19 law; earlier this month, lawmakers approved a $200 million hospital funding bill.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, and three other members of the New House Repubublican Caucus voted against the bill. Drazkowski criticized the lack of public input and transparency.
He said the government response to the pandemic has been heavy handed, arguing families best know how to care for themselves.